Never Have I Ever gets the uneasy tensions of being the ‘token Asian’

Michelle Law on how Mindy Kaling’s teen show offers hope to new — and existing — viewers

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I’m Michael Sun, Netflix Culture Editor at Junkee and former teen. This week, I chat to iconic writer and national treasure Michelle Law on the one scene from Never Have I Ever that’s painfully relatable to any POC viewer. 

MS: Is there a show hornier than Never Have I Ever and its second season’s two-timing hot-girl antics? No, but we are not here to talk about that today because this newsletter has been too horny of late. What we are here to discuss is one of the season’s most wholesome moments…

ML: ’Tis truly the season of horniness (I blame lockdown), but a scene I absolutely adored in this season involves an important apology. But let’s rewind a bit for context. At the end of season one, Devi’s just scattered her dad’s ashes and has gained this beautiful closeness with her family that we haven’t seen before. By season two, she’s feeling more whole, has gained some closure, and has grown a lot, which is of course super hot (self reflection and accountability = 5 stars) and leads to her love interests Ben and Paxton unknowingly vying for her affections. 

But Devi’s not completely changed/fixed (is anyone?) and this new season sees her trying to juggle family issues, her grades, her friends, and romance, all while navigating a new student on the scene. That’s Aneesa — an effortlessly cool and immediately popular Indian girl. Of course, Devi messes up royally and destroys her friendship with Aneesa, but ultimately comes good by looking beyond her own selfishness and narcissism and apologising. The apology is all about Devi feeling threatened by Aneesa’s arrival after being the token Indian at school for forever. It’s a huge mood for us POC folk growing up and living in Western countries. 

Unfortunately the Devi/Aneesa beef (fine, one-sided animosity) felt all too relatable — there was a pang when I watched this season and remembered all the times I’d felt weirdly envious towards other POC in the same spaces as me, as if it was some Hunger Games showdown where ~ there could only be one ~, when this is definitely not the case.

I love how Aneesa is so well rounded and amicable while Devi just represents all of our own insecurities and flaws and messiness. It’s why she’s such an amazing protagonist! That “there can only be one” mentality is SO rife and heartbreaking among minority groups. I for sure have been on the receiving end of that mentality many times, and been the aggressor in those situations too. One of the most significant rivalries (again, one-sided animosity) I had was with another Chinese girl at my primary school who I straight up refused to hang out with because she embodied a lot of Asian stereotypes I’d worked so hard to dispel among my white peers … like only being able to speak broken English and smelling really strongly of moth balls (I know — I’m terrible). Even though our parents were mates (all ethnics DO apparently know each other haaaa) I wrote her off immediately until we got lumped together in the same classes in high school. 

The notion that there can only ever be one minority paving the way is super toxic because the only reason we feel that sense of competition is because of racist systems that have historically kept us all excluded.

The second we got to know each other I realised we had so much in common; being friends with her was such a relief and comfort. We became best mates pretty much immediately after I got over myself. The notion that there can only ever be one minority paving the way is super toxic because the only reason we feel that sense of competition is because of racist systems that have historically kept us all excluded. So we feel there’s less opportunities to go around. But honestly, the more the merrier! There’s power in numbers and community and someone else’s success absolutely does not detract from your own. 

Absolutely! That kind of competition is both toxic and insidious, because it comes from a place of fear: Devi is afraid that Aneesa is going to usurp her friends, her ex, and her social standing, and it’s not until she dispels these fears in her own mind that she can apologise in this scene. I am…honestly still shaking from seeing something so specific to the POC experience on screen. 

Oh my god. I remember watching the first episodes of season one and feeling really worried that this was going to be another surface-level exploration of teenage hood with a ~ zany ~ ethnic edge, but the specificity of everything makes this show such a joy to watch. 

Yes, the casting of a young WOC and her Black and POC best friends — alongside the fact the hottest guy at school is a biracial dude — is crucial, because that’s literally what the world looks like. But it’s actually the creative team behind the show that is key for me. Mindy Kaling is such a brilliant story and comedy mind, and as show-runner she’s hired all of these incredible POC creatives who have been able to meaningfully unpack the complexities of being a young WOC in a way that honours the character’s cultural background by examining how it affects the way she experiences adolescence. The audience is really encouraged to decentralise whiteness, which is the lens through which so many teen shows and films are shown. I would have died to have this show growing up. Actually, strike that. I’m still dying in present day. 

Seeing this show take off around the world just fills me with a lot of hope. 

That makes two of us continuing to die (and not just over every gratuitous much-needed slo-mo shot of Paxton). I really like what you say about decentralising whiteness — because even as POC viewers that’s an important and difficult process. It’s heartwarming to see Devi go through that journey in a way that’s by no means perfect!

Totally! What I love most about Devi is how she’s constantly getting ahead of herself, and that can manifest in her thinking she's far more progressive and healed than she is. The reality is that she’s still carrying a ton of internalised racism. Her apology to Aneesa is proof that she’s unlearning all that toxicity and it’s great to see their friendship grow from there. 

And on a more general note about decentralising whiteness — it’s so cool to see a young WOC indefatigably pursuing and even attaining the things she wants because I think that will fundamentally shift the way young POC kids might see themselves. By which I mean, we can be the main character of the story, and people are actually into us. I was totally that nerdy Asian kid at school amongst a sea of white students, who lived out all of her emotional and romantic fantasies in her imagination (look, it was all I had, seeing as my mum was even MORE overprotective than Devi’s mum and media representation in the nineties and noughties was even more monocultural than now). Seeing this show take off around the world just fills me with a lot of hope. 

Hope for viewers, hope for the world, and also hope that two hot boys can be thirsting after us at any one time too.

Amen.


Michelle Law is a writer of film, theatre and print. Her works include the plays Single Asian Female and Miss Peony, the SBS web series Homecoming Queens, and the book Asian Girls are Going Places, which will be published in October 2021. 
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